News & Current Affairs
13 January 2015
Australian PM says he'll now use Daesh instead of Isil for 'death cult' – but why?
Tony Abbott says the new name deprives the group of legitimacy, but why do its members hate it and what makes naming them so complicated?
Islamic State fighters parade through Raqqa in Syria.
The Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, has announced that from now he will refer to the Islamic State group as “Daesh”, on the grounds that the terminology deprives the group of legitimacy among Muslims.
“Daesh hates being referred to by this term, and what they don’t like has an instinctive appeal to me,’’ the Australian prime minister said.
“I absolutely refuse to refer to it by the title that it claims for itself [Islamic State], because I think this is a perversion of religion and a travesty of governance.”
Western leaders and media have struggled for a consistent terminology to identify the group, which was initially known in English as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), then the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) and subsequently often simply as Islamic State (IS). Al-Sham is often translated as Syria but can also refer specifically to Damascus or even the entire Levant region.
“Islamic State” is near enough a literal translation from the group’s name in Arabic, Al Dawla al-Islamyia, yet the original is more of a religious concept than a political one. Our translation is misleading because it implies a western conception of bureaucratic statehood.
The Arabic equivalent relates to the Qur’anic ideal of a universal Islamic community or umma, united by faith and spirituality, and bound in religious terms by sharia. No matter what term the media use, English cannot adequately capture that meaning.
In that light, Abbott’s insistence on “Daesh” seems like a canny workaround. He, like the French president, François Hollande, is essentially saying: you don’t get to name yourselves. It solves the problem both of legitimacy and of semantically flawed translations.
Daesh is also an acronym, but of the Arabic words that mean the same as Isis: Al Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham.
As such, it loses all meaning in non-Arabic contexts. With Daesh – or Da’ish, with the emphasis on a long “e” – the Islamic association is nowhere to be found. Abbott manages to further neuter the term by mispronouncing it “Dash”. Perhaps this itself is a subtle power move.
It is not just the lack of the word “Islamic” in the new term that frustrates Isis. In adopting the term Abbott joins many Arabic speakers who also use Daesh.
In Arabic, the word lends itself to being snarled with aggression. As Simon Collis, the British ambassador to Iraq told Ian Black: “Arabic speakers spit out the name Da’ish with different mixtures of contempt, ridicule and hostility. Da’ish is always negative.”
And if that wasn’t infuriating enough for the militants, Black reports that the acronym has already become an Arabic word in its own right, with a plural – daw’aish – meaning “bigots who impose their views on others”.